Several years ago, my husband came home one morning with an unexpected message. I heard his main point — he’d been living a secret life with other women — but it would take me years to process.
And forgiveness was nowhere in sight.
Shortly after his confession, he moved out to answer the ultimatum of his girlfriend, and I was left to deal with what I heard him telling me: I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t worthy enough to be loved or respected.
More harmful than learning about my husband’s infidelity were those damaging thoughts to my psyche. To know that you’ve let another person make you feel unloved or unloveable is what causes the pain that can leave you bedridden, suicidal, or eager for revenge. Further, his running out on me and away from the truth challenged my attempts to heal.
I had no idea how I was supposed to bounce back from the kind of pain that nicks away at your soul, kills your spirit, and leaves you wondering, “What the hell just happened?” He may have felt some guilt, but he wasn’t sorry. I know this because when he did make one attempt by phone to apologize, he tried to insert me in his excuses. I couldn’t listen to that and hung up on him.
When it comes to adultery, forgiveness may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Thankfully, says one expert, it may not even be necessary.
If there are any keys to forgiveness, the person who hurt you has to show remorse first, says Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph. D., a board certified clinical psychologist, forgiveness expert and author of After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful (this year, in its second edition) and How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To.
Without remorse, forgiveness is futile. Instead, she says, work toward acceptance.
“It’s not about forgiveness," Spring says. "It’s about taking steps to heal yourself, and acceptance is the healthier model."
Without even knowing this model existed, that’s exactly what I had done with my own adulterer. I had learned to accept his behavior, not as being okay, but as being what happened. To get there, I had to do what Spring suggests and move past the obsessive thoughts.
“One of the psychological losses that follows infidelity is the loss of control over the mind. The mind is hijacked with obsessive thoughts, and that’s not interesting. It’s not fun, and you can stop it,” she says.
When you find yourself thinking those, “I’m no good” thoughts, you can interrupt them and avoid wasting 20 minutes in the car ruminating over what happened or how it made you feel. How? By simply telling yourself out loud to “Stop!” she says. Then redirect your attention on something more pleasant. In her book, she offers an entire chapter of ideas on how to stop the obsessive thinking.
She also encourages taking action that will help you avoid future abuses. If you’re divorcing, for example, she says find a good attorney and get the best settlement you can.
“You don’t seek revenge," she says. "You take the legal route and move on. Whatever you do, you do it thoughtfully…If there are children involved, you try to be civil toward the ex-spouse, not because you forgive him or love him, but because the children will suffer otherwise.
“If the other person is willing to do the work it will take to repair the trust, then think about forgiveness." If that’s the case, she says you’ll have work to do as well, including not harassing the offender with your rage.
So rather than think of reaching forgiveness, Spring says, personal health is the goal. Once you have that, everything else can fall into place.
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